1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Bede
BEDE, Beda, or Bæda (672 or 673-735), English historian and theologian. Of Bæda, commonly called “the Venerable Bede,” almost all that we know is contained in the short autobiographical notice which he has appended to his Ecclesiastical History:—“Thus much concerning the ecclesiastical history of Britain, and especially of the race of the English, I, Baeda, a servant of Christ and priest of the monastery of the blessed apostles St Peter and St Paul, which is at Wearmouth and at Jarrow, have with the Lord’s help composed, so far as I could gather it, either from ancient documents, or from the tradition of the elders, or from my own knowledge. I was born in the territory of the said monastery, and at the age of seven I was, by the care of my relations, given to the reverend Abbot Benedict (Biscop), and afterwards to Ceolfrid, to be educated. From that time I have spent the whole of my life within that monastery devoting all my pains to the study of the scriptures; and amid the observance of monastic discipline, and the daily charge of singing in the church, it has ever been my delight to learn or teach or write. In my nineteenth year I was admitted to the diaconate, in my thirtieth to the priesthood, both by the hands of the most reverend Bishop John (of Hexham), and at the bidding of Abbot Ceolfrid. From the time of my admission to the priesthood to my (present) fifty-ninth year, I have endeavoured, for my own use and that of my brethren, to make brief notes upon the Holy Scripture, either out of the works of the venerable fathers, or in conformity with their meaning and interpretation.” Then follows a list of his works, so far as, at that date, they had been composed. As the Ecclesiastical History was written in 731, we obtain the following dates for the principal events in Bede’s uneventful life:—birth, 672-673; entrance into the monastery, 679-680; ordination as deacon, 691-692; as priest, 702-703.
The monastery of Wearmouth was founded by Benedict Biscop in 674, and that of Jarrow in 681-682. Though some 5 or 6 m. apart, they were intended to form a single monastery under a single abbot, and so Bede speaks of them in the passage given above. It is with Jarrow that Bede is chiefly associated, though no doubt from the close connexion of the two localities he would often be at Wearmouth. The preface to the prose life of Cuthbert proves that he had stayed at Lindisfarne prior to 721, while the Epistle to Egbert shows that he had visited him at York in 733. The tradition that he went to Rome in obedience to a summons from Pope Sergius is contradicted by his own words above, and by his total silence as to any such visit. In the passage cited above, “monastic discipline, the daily charge of singing in the church, learning, teaching, writing,” in other words devotion and study make up the even tenor of Bede’s tranquil life. Anecdotes have been preserved which illustrate his piety both in early and in later years; of his studies the best monument is to be found in his writings. As a little boy he would take his place among the pupils of the monastic school, though he would soon pass to the ranks of the teachers, and the fact that he was ordained deacon at nineteen, below the canonical age, shows that he was regarded as remarkable both for learning and goodness.
For the rest, it is in his works that we must chiefly seek to know him. They fall into three main classes: (1) scientific; (2) historical; (3) theological. The first class comprises works on grammar, one on natural phenomena, and two on chronology and the calendar. These last were inspired largely by the Paschal Question, which was the subject of such bitter controversy between the Roman and Celtic Churches in the 7th century. They form a natural transition to the second class. In this the chief place is held by the Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. By this Bede has justly earned the title of the Father of English History. By this almost exclusively he is known to others than professed students. It is indeed one of the most valuable and one of the most beautiful of historical works. Bede has the artist’s instinct of proportion, the artist’s sense for the picturesque and the pathetic. His style too, modelled largely, in the present writer’s opinion, on that of Gregory in the Dialogues, is limpid and unaffected. And though it would be wrong to call Bede a critical historian in the modern sense of the words, he shows a very unusual conscientiousness in collecting his information from the best available sources, and in distinguishing between what he believed to be fact, and what he regarded only as rumour or tradition. Other historical works of Bede are the History of the Abbots (of Wearmouth and Jarrow), and the lives of Cuthbert in verse and prose. The History of the Abbots and the prose life of Cuthbert were based on earlier works which still survive. In the case of the latter it cannot honestly be said that Bede has improved on his original. In the History of the Abbots he was much nearer to the facts, and could make additions out of his own personal knowledge. The Epistle to Egbert, though not historical in form, may be mentioned here, because of the valuable information which it contains as to the state of the Northumbrian Church, on which the disorders and revolutions of the Northumbrian kingdom had told with disastrous effect. It is probably the latest of Bede’s extant works, as it was written in November 734, only six months before his death. The third or theological class of writings consists mainly of commentaries, or of works which, if not commentaries in name, are so in fact. They are based largely on the works of the four great Latin Fathers, SS. Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose and Gregory; though Bede’s reading is very far from being limited to these. His method is largely allegorical. For the text of scripture he uses both the Latin versions, the Itala and the Vulgate, often comparing them together. But he certainly knew Greek, and possibly some Hebrew. Indeed it may be said that his works, scientific, historical and theological, practically sum up all the learning of western Europe in his time, which he thus made available for his countrymen. And not for them only; for in the school of York, founded by his pupil Archbishop Ecgberht, was trained Alcuin (Ealhwine) the initiator under Charles the Great of the Frankish schools, which did so much for learning on the continent. And though Bede makes no pretensions to originality, least of all in his theological works, freely taking what he needed, and (what is very rare in medieval writers) acknowledging what he took, “out of the works of the venerable Fathers,” still everything he wrote is informed and impressed with his own special character and temper. His earnest yet sober piety, his humility, his gentleness, appear in almost every line. “In history and in science, as well as in theology, he is before all things the Christian thinker and student.” (Plummer’s Bede, i. 2.) Yet it should not be forgotten that Bede could hardly have done what he did without the noble library of books collected by Benedict Biscop.
Several quaint and beautiful legends have been handed down as to the origin of the epithet of “venerable” generally attached to his name. Probably it is a mere survival of a title commonly given to priests in his day. It has given rise to a false idea that he lived to a great age; some medieval authorities making him ninety when he died. But he was not born before 672 (see above); and though the date of his death has been disputed, the traditional year, 735, is most probably correct. This would make him at most sixty-three. Of his death a most touching and beautiful account has been preserved in a contemporary letter. His last hours were spent, like the rest of his life, in devotion and teaching, his latest work being to dictate, amid ever-increasing bodily weakness, a translation into the vernacular of the Gospel of St John, a work which unhappily has not survived. It was a fitting close to such a life as his.
Bibliography.—The above sketch is largely based on the present writer’s essay on Bede’s Life and Works, prefixed to his edition of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, &c. (2 vols., Clarendon Press, 1896). Beda der Ehrwürdige und seine Zeit, by Dr Karl Werner (Vienna, 1875), is excellent. Gehle, Disputatio ... de Bedae vita et Scriptis (Leiden, 1838), is still useful. Dr William Bright’s Chapters of Early English Church History (3rd ed., Clarendon Press, 1897) is indispensable. See also Ker, Dark Ages, pp. 141 ff. Of the collected works of Bede the most convenient edition is that by Dr Giles in twelve volumes (8vo., 1843-1844), which includes translations of the Historical Works. The Continental folio editions (Basel, 1563; Cologne, 1612 and 1688) contain many works which cannot by any possibility be Bede’s. The edition of Migne, Patralogia Latina (1862 ff.) is based on a comparison of the Cologne edition with Giles and Smith (see below), and is open to the same criticism. On the chronology and genuineness of the works commonly ascribed to Bede, see Plummer’s ed., i., cxlv-clix.
On the MSS. early editions and translations of the Historia Ecclesiastica, see Plummer, u.s., i., lxxx-cxxxii. The edition of Whelock (Cambridge, fol. 1643-1644) is noteworthy as the first English edition of the Latin text, and as the editio princeps of the Anglo-Saxon version ascribed to King Alfred (see Alfred the Great). Smith’s edition (Cambridge, fol. 1722) contained not only these, but also the other historical works of Bede, with notes and appendices. It is a monument of learning and scholarship. The most recent edition is that with notes and introduction by the present writer, u.s. It includes also the History of the Abbots, and the Epistle to Egbert. Of books iii. and iv. only, there is a learned edition by Professors Mayor and Lumby of Cambridge (3rd ed., 1881). A cheap and handy edition of the text alone is that by A. Holder (Freiburg im Breisgau, 1882, &c.). The best-known modern English translation is that by the Rev. L. Gidley (1870). Of the minor historical works a good edition was edited by Rev. J. Stevenson for the Eng. Hist. Soc. in 1841; and a translation by the same hand was included in Church Historians of England, vol. i., part ii. (1853). See also Plummer’s edition, pp. cxxxii-cxlii.